Ottawa
3 min

City Hall locks out cultural communities

I have to confess to being so stunned that I didn’t say anything. Those who know me wouldn’t be surprised at the idea of my being stunned, but silent is well, not my favourite state. I was in Ottawa’s Rogers studio, a panel guest for the live program Talk Ottawa on Apr 4.

A caller had just asked Coun. Diane Holmes for her personal position about creating a rainbow village on Bank St when it’s dug up and redeveloped-you know, a few flags, a couple of signs, maybe rainbow lights on the tree. Subtle stuff that should offend nobody unless they’ve got some deep-down discomfort with those uppity gays being too visible.

Holmes paused. A long pause. A long, very telling pause. And then she said it wasn’t up to her but up to the Bank St Promenade Business Improvement Area. Because, of course, it’s the merchants who will have to pay for the flags-city hall just pays for sewers and the stuff that little boys dream of doing to streets with heavy equipment.

That’s when my mind froze. And my mouth.

But we went back to the hard-working councillor to ask her to explain, and published the results in the May 18 issue of Capital Xtra. Again, she evaded answering directly whether she’s in support. But she hints that she’s in favour of “something that delineates the area” while conceding that she’s giving a vague answer.

Now, like many out there, I’m aware that Holmes has supported Pride over the years and is fully comfortable with gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans. She’s working even as I write this to get money for Pride from city council.

And you know what? That was fine in 1986. But 20 years later, our community has a right to expect a hell of a lot more than we’re getting here. Let me explain. I think Holmes and some other officials and administrators at city hall understand that there are some 60,000 or more gay individuals in Ottawa-Gatineau region. And they support those individuals and their rights to things like participating in an annual Pride Parade.

Good! But not good enough. Because we’re more than a collection of individuals. We’re also a community, or even a couple of communities. And we are also cultures. And as such, we have a right to respect as all three: as individuals, as members of a community, and as a series of cultures.

So, for example, even if the Bank St Promenade BIA decided they didn’t want a rainbow village to be created, if our community wanted it to be so designated then city hall needs a process whereby we can make it happen. That’s because a Rainbow Village isn’t about the 30-some queer businesses and institutions along Bank St; it’s about recognizing that there’s a queer community on the street and in the surrounding neighbourhood, including but not limited to those businesses and institutions.

The same for Little Italy and Chinatown. It’s not just about the individuals. It’s not just about the businesses. It’s about the surrounding community and its claim to space, to respect, to inclusion as a community in planning processes at city hall.

Other cities get this. Ottawa lags. The Ottawa city website has no recognition that Ottawa is a community of communities. Ottawa’s planning process, for example, doesn’t include representation from cultural communities (including queers) on advisory committees. It doesn’t reach out to cultural communities to consult on development proposals, zoning changes, and so on.

And yet, today the only cultural community systematically consulted on a broad range of issues that affect them is the francophone community; it’s good that they are, but it needs to be broadened to other self-identified communities, including ours.

That would make Ottawa truly progressive, and respectful of queers. It would be something concrete, rather than just the easy mouthing of the words of recognition and support for us as individuals.

Now, there’s an election issue that could cut across the city. Building a community of communities. One where groups are consulted on their needs. Where city processes involve cultural groups in physical planning, social planning, environmental planning, transportation planning, and arts planning. Imagine the city we could build together by respecting that many of us belong to communities and that we have collective needs.